Sunday, April 1, 2018

Plant Confustions for April 1

There are some plant confusions out there. Here are three, coral tree and kapok, tea and ti, cassia and cinnamon.

Coral tree, ceibo in Spanish, Erythrina crista-galli, is the source of kapok, the cotton-like fluff is produced in the seed pods and used as a mattress filling and similar applications.
Coral tree, Erythrina crust-galli, called ceiba in Spanish
April Fool!  There are two trees with nearly identical Spanish names. Coral tree is ceibo in Spanish, scientifically Erythrina crista-galli, in the pea familiy Fabaceae. They are moderate sized trees several native to Central and South America. Kapok is ceiba in Spanish, with the scientific name Ceiba pentandra in the mallow or hibiscus family Malvaceae. Native to Central and South Ameria they grow into huge trees. Ceibo is the national flower of Argentina and Uruguay, ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala. 

kapok, ceiba, Ceiba pentandra
kapok, ceiba, Ceiba pentandra. It has just put on leaves in spring, note the pods up among the branches.

kapok pod, ceiba, Ceiba pentandra
kapok pod, ceiba, likely Ceiba pentandra
has pods like a bean
kapok pod, ceiba, Ceiba pentandra
Big kapok, ceiba, tree in winter: see pods high on the branches

Ti is an alternate spelling of tea.

Well maybe, but there are three different plants called ti or tea.

One plant called tea is Camellia sinensis, in the plant family Theaceae. This is the source of the leaves that are made into a very popular drink when hot water is poured over them, tea. Tea can be a shrub or small tree. Tea is from Asia, was domesticated in China millennia ago, and grows only in cool tropical regions. Other species of Camellia are grown for their flowers, camellias, and their leaves are not used for drinking. This tea is never spelled ti. Its name comes from its Chinese name, cha (sinensis in the scientific name means "from China').

tea, Camellia sinensis
tea, Camellia sinensis
Another tea is Melaleuca alternifolia a tree native to eastern Australia, in the plant family Myrtaceae. The essential oil produced from the leaves of (Australian) tea is a widely used medicine or ingredient added to herbal medicines. Tea tree oil treats coughs and colds and is used as an antibacterial, though there is little data on effectiveness. The essential oil is toxic if ingested. This implies, since it is used in medicine, that the essential oil is ok to consume when weak, dangerous in high concentrations. Other species of Melaleuca (there are many) also produce tea tree oil commercially. You can see it spelled both ti and tea. Apparently the original name was "tea" or "tea tree" because sailors used it as a substitute for Chinese tea (Camellia) during Captain Cook's voyage that discovered Australia (1770). Given the same pronunciation and spelling, you have to pay attention to know which tea it is. If you read or hear "tea tree oil" that's Melaleuca, if its a cup of tea, it is Camellia.

I don't have a picture of a Melaleuca tree, here are some online:  link very pretty and not much like Chinese tea.

There is one more, the Hawaiian ti plant, Cordyline fruticosa, also called the good luck plant, palm lily and cabbage tree. This plant is from southeast Asia and was carried all over the Pacific, including Hawaii, by Polynesians. It is a widely grown tropical ornamental. Hawaiian folklore used it to ward off evil spirits or for general good luck, so it was often worn or carried. It has lots of lovely folklore and many uses including for weaving the leaves into sandals and hula skirts and distilling the roots into a brandy see link  As far as I know, Cordyline is properly spelled ti and only sounds like "tea".  (Which didn't stop me, on my first trip to Hawaii, from thinking it was the source of Chinese tea.)
ti, Cordyline fruticosa
ti, Cordyline fruticosa
ti, Cordyline fruticosa
ti, Cordyline fruticosa, red-leafed variety
Cassia and cinnamon are the same thing.
April Fool! They are confusing but different. Cinnamon is produced from the bark of several trees in the genus Cinnamomum in the plant family Lauraceae, the family of bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) from which we get the spice bay leaves. One of these is Cinnamomum cassia, called cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon or Chinese cassia. 

The problem is that there is a whole genus Cassia, in a different plant family, the Fabaceae, the pea and bean family. From the 1800s to the 1980s Cassia was a huge genus of yellow flowered legumes. It was easy to say "that's a cassia" and be right. It has since been divided into several genera, removing easily 500 species, but their remains a genus Cassia which includes important ornamental trees such as golden shower tree, Cassia fistulosa, the pink shower tree, Cassia grandis.and the Java cassia Cassia javanica. I could not find a summary of the number of species still properly put into the genus Cassia, but counted 90 names on The Plant List that its authors consider to be legitimate Cassia species today. Some of the plants subdivided into other genera still sometimes use the common name cassia, so that, for example, cassia gum, is produced from two species no longer in Cassia but now in the genus Senna but the name of the gum is unchanged.

Golden shower tree, Cassia sp.
Golden shower or golden rain tree, Cassia fistulosa
Cassia flowers
Cassia flowers 
Cassia oil is from Cinnamomum cassia, Chinese cinnamon, not a plant that was ever in the genus Cassia. (This website shows the wrong photo, though the description is correct link  This is a very common error and difficult to figure out from the information that easily comes up on the internet). 

Chinese cinnamon trees (Cinnamomum cassia, formerly Cinnamomum aromatica) are from Southeast Asia. They and other species of Cinnamomum are planted around the tropics but are not common. The cinnamon trees I've seen have small cream colored flowers and fruits that look like little ripe olives (not the bean pods of the genus Cassia), see flower and fruit photos of Cinnamomum from Wikipedia link. The trees are only interesting when you lean close and smell the bark. Ahh! cinnamon!

Chinese cinnamon, Cinnamomum cassia
Chinese cinnamon, Cinnamomum cassia
Its new leaves pink
All these plants were named long ago, when plant identification was regional. Our ability to search on a name has revealed all sorts of identical or similar names that can cause lots of confusion, especially because often you have no idea there is more than one plant with that name. See also my posts about sage, bergamot and hemlock.

Comments and corrections welcome

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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